Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low, Each like a corpse within its grave,until Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) With living hues and odors plain and hill: Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!
The climb to the mountain summit was slow. The disc problem in my back has put my left leg in pain from a pinched sciatic nerve. It has lingered for months and months. I can tolerate the pain if I take it slowly and stop now and then. It hurts whether I’m sitting still or on the move so I may as well explore this low mountain off the west side of our property. Adia, my female bloodhound, is with me on this day. Her presence helps me to keep my mind on the beautiful surroundings and off of my back and leg.
The view at the top is nothing spectacular. You can see a wooded valley and lot more forest on an east facing hillside on the opposite side of the dell. The trees in this area are nearly all hardwoods, mostly American beech, sugar and red maple, white ash, yellow, white, and black birch, and red oak. There is a lot of outcropping bedrock. The schist contains a lot of mica and the splashes of sun that find their way through the overhead branches make the rocks glisten in quick flashes of white light. There is a strong wind today; one of the reasons I decided to climb this hill. It is cool, the air is light, and the sky is blue, blue, blue. There are a few puffy white clouds that are in sharp contrast to the brilliant blue background, and a few elongated clouds that are sort of a rectangular shape. The edges of the rectangular clouds are smeared like paint on a canvas. They seem to blend into the blue background with very fuzzy margins.
Adia lifts her nose into the wind. It quivers as she pulls in scents that I can only imagine. Bloodhounds have a sense of smell more than 100,000 times greater than that of a human being. Their world of scent brings them to dimensions we can only pretend to understand. And on a windy day like this she can smell scents from tens of miles away. I wonder how it is she separates these scents. I suspect it is like vision where we can see the whole picture and focus on what we choose.
The wind is out of the northwest and stout. Branches on the trees sway back and forth and every once in a while there is a gust that moves the air forcefully. I’m glancing upwards a lot as there are still countless hanging dead branches tangled in the tree tops from the great ice storm two and half years ago. Getting bonked in the head would not be exactly what I had in mind on this day.
These winds are created by high pressure. This common weather phenomenon is usually caused by the air being cooled. This can happen in one of two ways. The air can be cooled from below, usually from the ocean, or from above often the result of arctic air masses over land. This high pressure area is coming from Canada and probably originated over the Hudson Bay. As the air mass cools, it becomes smaller,. This allows air from nearby areas to fill in above it increasing the total mass of atmosphere above the surface, which then results in higher barometric pressures at the surface of the earth. The difference in pressure between a high pressure area and a nearby low pressure areas causes the wind to blow. The wind generally flows from high pressure to low pressure. On this day the winds are nearly fierce and they break the silence of an otherwise tranquil day..
My runny eyes tells me that there is pollen in the air today. I look at the northwest side of a white birch and I can see some of the green pollen collecting on the bark. Plant pollination happens through biotic or abiotic processes. An example of biotic pollination would be the pollination of plants by bees. Most abiotic pollination occurs either from the wind or water. Wind dispersal is often referred to as Aeolian dispersal, after the Greek God of the wind Aeolus. Only about 10% of all plants are pollinated through abiotic processes. Grasses are pollinated by wind as are sedges. Maples, birches, oaks, ashes, aspens, and conifers are pollinated by aeolian processes. In these New England forests where all of these tree species are common the wind is critical to the development of future generations.
Of course wind is a key element in seed dispersal. Seeds of all sorts, from dandelions to maples, depend upon the wind to move future generations to new reaches. A dandelion seed attached to a parachute-like structure may migrate for miles before it lands somewhere to start a new generation, whereas winged maple seeds may move only a hundred feet at the most.
Winds also moves plant pheromones. These are chemicals that plants actually use to communicate. For instance, red oaks which all produce a peak of crop acorns within a region simultaneously, likely send signals using pheromones so that each tree knows that it is time to produce a peak crop. This secret language, long unknown to humans, is ancient and may even precede human language.
Moving air is important to wildlife. Predators use it to locate the scent of prey. Prey uses it to avoid predators. Wind is a aid in migration patterns both in the woods and for birds aloft. Wind may not only determine which way wildlife moves, but whether they move at all. Many animals, such as white tailed deer, are totally dependent on locating scents in their movement patterns. Windy days with cross winds may result in the deer hunkering down to avoid predation and detection. There may be an evolutionary advantage for those animals that have learned to work with the wind. Their life is more dependent on skill than happenstance; a safe set of tools to have in a dangerous world.
Adia and I walk along the ridge towards the northwest, the wind is in our face. As we pick through the abundant dead branches and tree tops on the forest floor we come upon some recently deposited black bear scat. The scat is full of seeds. Adia is most interested and smells the scat from all sides. She attempts to roll in the scat but I pull on the leash and direct her away from a smelly encounter. Black bears (and other bears) are the only animals in North America that have a more powerful sense of smell than bloodhounds. They use this sense of smell to find food, mates, and to avoid danger. Although bears are not particularly shy they can be wily and difficult to locate when they don’t want to be seen.
After about a half of mile along the ridge, and no wildlife encounters, Adia and I start the trek back to the homestead. Along the way we stop to take in the forest. The wind lingers and blows strong scents that even I can detect. Adia lifts her nose into the air and takes it all in. She is content to keep her findings to herself. I become slightly aware of something in the air and suspect my unconscious is caught in a sea of pheromones as it struggles to interpret the subtle messages of the natural world. On some days I’m thinking it would definitely be much better to be a bloodhound.
Written for the Heath Herald in July 2011.